If you grew up in the home video era, you may have found yourself asking, “What is a Director’s Cut?” When DVD emerged, some movies would claim to be a “Director’s Cut,” which could imply many things to the potential consumer. It might seem straightforward, but there’s a lot more to Director’s Cuts than just a longer version of a movie. So, what is a Director’s Cut and why are there so many of them? We’re going to go over the definition, its history through theatrical and home video releases, famous examples of Director’s Cuts and the different types that exist.
Director’s Cuts Explained
What does Director’s Cut mean?
Before going into the contemporary definition, we want to quickly mention that, during the editing process, a Director’s Cut can mean different things.
Films go through several cuts before being released. The most common of these are known as rough cuts (also known as workprints) and editor’s cuts. A Director’s Cut, therefore, is just one of several cuts that can exist before a "final cut" is produced.
DIRECTOR’S CUT DEFINITION
What is a Director’s Cut?
A Director’s Cut is a version of a movie that matches the director's original vision. Since most directors aren't given "final cut" privileges, it is the studio that dictates the version that gets released. A Director's Cut is typically released after the film has had an initial theatrical run. This "director-approved" version is typically released in the home video market only but some films, like Ari Aster's Midsommar, were given a limited theatrical release. The term is usually applied to movies but it can also be used for TV, music videos, and even video games.
Typical changes found in a Director's Cut:
- Added scenes left out of the theatrical version (aka "deleted scenes")
- Extended scenes or sequences
- Scenes deleted from the theatrical version
- Altered musical score or voiceover narration
- Enhanced or updated special effects
Director’s Cut Beginnings
Origins of the Director’s Cut
One of the earliest examples of a director’s cut comes from Charlie Chaplin’s classic film The Gold Rush. After it was originally released in 1925, the film was re-edited and re-released in 1942. This version added a new musical score, voice over narration, and deleted a few scenes.
Not only that, but the frame rate was changed, which actually made the movie 23 minutes shorter. This version has ultimately become the primary version, though both versions are available. Curious what the finished film looks like? Watch it in its entirety right now!
Audiences started to see a bit more Director’s Cuts in the 1970s. While the majority of movies were still released theatrically, a couple movies were notably re-released with changes.
George Lucas turned one of his student films, THX 1138, into a feature in 1971. The film flopped and nearly bankrupted the studio, Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope. Not only that, but the film had its runtime shortened against Lucas’ wishes.
After the massive success of Star Wars, Lucas was able to re-release THX 1138, adding scenes that had been removed. Later still, he would release what is called the “The George Lucas Director’s Cut” in 2004. That version included newly-made computer generated imagery, along with a new digital remaster of the preexisting footage.
Also in 1977, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, directed by Lucas’s good friend Steven Spielberg, hit cinemas. Even though he had coveted final cut privileges, he was not fully satisfied with the released version. According to Spielberg, he wanted more time to work on it, but the studio wanted the movie released ASAP. The film was a massive hit, giving him the opportunity to finish it to his satisfaction.
Re-released in 1980, this version of Close Encounters was mandated to include an extended ending that Spielberg was very opposed to. This Special Edition was the only version available on home video until The Criterion Collection released both cuts on LaserDisc in 1990.
In 1998, Spielberg was able to finally realize his vision with an official “Director’s Cut,” which notably removed the studio-mandated “Special Edition” ending.
THE RISE OF HOME VIDEO
Director’s Cuts thrive on home video
While Chaplin, Lucas, Spielberg were among the first directors to re-release their films, the idea of a “Director’s Cut” on home video did not start to form until the 1980s.
Even before the rise of VHS, cable TV was still a surefire way to catch a movie at home. Extremely influential pay television station Z Channel (broadcast locally in Southern California) is credited with helping popularize Director’s Cuts as we know them. The channel was a film lover’s dream, featuring lesser-known and foreign films, unedited and sometimes even in their original aspect ratios.
In 1982, the channel broadcast the original premiere version of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, marketing it as “the Director’s Cut.” Prior to this broadcast, Heaven’s Gate was seen as one of the biggest failures in contemporary cinema. The original run time was over 200 minutes and later re-cut to be just under 150 minutes.
Aside from being a critical flop, it ended up being a major financial disaster for the film’s production company. It's also considered the final nail in the coffin for the celebrated New Hollywood era.
Z Channel’s broadcast of Heaven’s Gate was a success was the station’s most watched feature ever. People who only knew of its reputation had a chance to watch a version closer to the director’s original vision. This resulted in a reassessment that has continued to this day — a definitive Director’s Cut was released in 2012.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Director’s Cuts truly became widespread at the local video stores. James Cameron became one of the more notable film directors to add deleted scenes to his movies.
Aliens, The Abyss, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day all featuring extended Director’s Cuts. Due to Cameron’s disapproval of the term, the films were not marketed as “Director’s Cuts.” Instead, they were dubbed “Special Editions.”
Aliens already had additional scenes in the 1989 TV broadcast version but Cameron released Special Editions on VHS and LaserDisc in 1990 and ‘91 respectively. The added scenes provided more character development and extended sequences that were removed by the studio.
Here's a thorough breakdown of the differences between the theatrical and James Cameron's "special edition" (aka Director's Cut).
A Special Edition of Terminator 2 on LaserDisc (and later DVD) would soon follow, along with a Special Edition of The Abyss. The Abyss Special Edition, in particular, was much longer than the theatrical cut and included a removed ending sequence that could not be completed for the film’s original release.
Perhaps the most notable example of a movie with alternate cuts is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The film had major production problems before being released in 1982 to mixed critical response and lukewarm box office results.
However, between 1990 and 1991, the film’s "Workprint edit" was screened and generated positive buzz. This led to Warner Bros. (with Scott's involvement) to release a “Director’s Cut” in 1992.
Years later, with the advent of DVD and Blu-ray, Scott was able to, once again, go back and create what is now known as “The Final Cut,” widely regarded as the definitive (and “only”) version of the film.
Director’s Cut Types
Different types of Director’s Cuts
Ever since DVDs and Blu-rays became the norm, Director’s Cuts are now a regular part of the home video business. There are now so many movies with alternate cuts that we could not possibly list them all here.
What we can do is provide you with the most common types of “Director’s Cuts,” which often go by various names and may mean different things, depending on the type of “cut” it is.
A Director's Cut is the most common label, often sold as being the director’s original vision. In some cases, such as Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, a substantial amount of footage was added, which garnered it critical acclaim as one of the best Director’s Cuts of all time.
However, in some cases, it really is just a marketing ploy. Using Scott again, his “Director’s Cut” of Alien has been confirmed as nothing more than a studio mandate for one of the home video releases. In rare cases, legitimate Director’s Cuts are shorter than their theatrical releases.
Famously used by James Cameron and George Lucas, this term emphasizes that the new cut of the film is merely a different version, and that the theatrical releases can be seen as the director’s definitive vision. Terminator 2, specifically, was re-released in an “Extreme Edition,” which came with both cuts of the film.
However, with Lucas, his Special Edition versions of the Star Wars films have supplanted the theatrical versions, much to fan disapproval.
Extended Director’s Cut/Extended Edition
A longer version of the film, often adding scenes that are new or added back. A relative of the Special Edition, Extended Director’s Cuts are rarely, if ever, seen as definitive and merely just an added bonus for fans.
This is a rarer type of alternate cut, as legitimate workprints almost never see the light of day. In very rare cases, such as with Blade Runner, a workprint gets out and becomes an alternate version for fans.
Uncut or Unrated
The cousin of the Director’s Cut, "uncut" or "unrated" films come in two varieties. The first type is a film that had to be cut down in some small way to avoid a ratings issue or some other problem. Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop was originally rated X; to get an R rating, the film had to cut a couple minutes of extreme violence.
The other type of film using “uncut” or “unrated” is simply adding scenes that either feature more violence, sex, or profanity. In this sense, it’s similar to the most common Extended Editions that merely add those scenes so fans have another version of the movie.
While Director’s Cuts, and their related terms, are often used for marketing, they can sometimes be genuine alternate cuts representing a director’s preferred vision. Unfortunately, due to the overuse of the term, fans often have to do their own research before knowing what’s what. One thing’s for sure: just because a cut of a movie is longer doesn’t mean it’s better or the director’s preferred version.
FAMOUS DIRECTOR’S CUTS
Quick list of Director’s Cut movies
We can’t name every Director’s Cut out there, but we can list a few of the best director’s cuts. We’ll exclude anything that was done for marketing or studio-mandated purposes only, and instead focus on movies that have gained greater acclaim with their Director’s Cuts.
The 1980 theatrical version that went out was a critical and financial atrocity that caused its distributor United Artists financial ruin. As the film garnered more support over the years, director Michael Cimino was able to assemble his definitive Director’s Cut in 2012, garnering true critical acclaim for the first time.
Receiving mixed reviews and box office in 1982, Blade Runner was improved with new edits, culminating in the 2007 Final Cut that presents the definitive vision of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece.
Once Upon a Time in America
A sweeping epic by Sergio Leone, 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America is a gangster tale told over several generations. While the European cut was mostly left alone, the US cut reduced the film from 250 minutes to 139 minutes. While a longer version of the film would air on TV and be released on VHS, a more accessible version of a true Director’s Cut would eventually come in 2012.
Kingdom of Heaven
Ridley Scott once again had his directorial vision messed with in 2005. Kingdom of Heaven received negative reviews when it first released, but the Director’s Cut added over 40 more minutes of footage that helped flesh out characters, motivations, and situations, all of which garnered it greater critical acclaim.
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
Richard Donner returned for a sequel to his Superman: The Movie, only to be fired for not adhering to studio requests. Decades later, his vision for Superman II would be released in 2006 as The Richard Donner Cut. Using recovered footage, including Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Donner was finally able to bring his version of this sequel to life.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Arguably the most controversial film of the 2010s, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice released in 2016 to negative reviews. Zack Snyder later released the “Ultimate Cut,” which added back 30 minutes of footage for a total runtime of 3 hours.
Most fans and critics agree the Ultimate Cut is the superior version. We also have "The Snyder Cut" of Justice League coming to HBO Max in 2021, so the jury is out on that Director's Cut for the time being.
James Cameron’s best movies
Now that you’ve learned more about Director’s Cuts, you can dig into the filmography of James Cameron, arguably the most famous director with alternate cuts for his acclaimed pictures (that isn’t named George Lucas). Go through this ranked list and see what you can learn from this one-of-a-kind visionary filmmaker.